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Garry Russell Jr. vs. Vasyl Lomachenko: the Battle of Boxing’s Prodigal Sons

By Tyson Bruce

At one time or another they’ve both been labeled as the best prospect in boxing. At one time or another they’ve both been called the future of boxing. Yet, in today’s market, the two former blue chip investments have been downgraded to damaged goods—or at the very least a skeptical investment.

That at twenty–six years of age either one of them is considered a prospect speaks volumes about today’s boxing climate. Just to put this in perspective, when thirty-plus fight veterans, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad had their summit meeting in 1999 they were both twenty-six. This Saturday, for vastly different reasons, it will be put-up or shut-up time for two of professional boxing’s greatest enigmas.

When Garry Russell Jr. turned pro he seemed to have it all: hand-speed, one punch knockout power and poise beyond his years. More than that, for someone that had as many amateur fights as he did (well over 200 by all accounts) he took to the professional style of boxing like a fish to water. He had a crisp, point-scoring jab—a relatively dormant punch in amateur boxing because of the vile point scoring system—and, within just a handful of fights, experts were dubbing his fists the quickest in all of boxing.

So what happened?

Russell moved from novice into prospect seamlessly but the problem is that he never transitioned into anything else. He has remained in limbo-land, a permanent state of arrested development. Despite having a high-ranking and seemingly limitless talent, he’s been constantly matched against an identical breed of hopelessly misfit challengers. His handlers claim this is because no one wants to fight the young prodigy but rumors from inside the boxing community instead point to a prima donna looking for a gift-wrapped path to a world title.

Regardless of the true reason, boxing fans appear to have made up their minds: Russell is a protected product. How could they think anything else? He’s had an unfortunate spat of injuries but does that justify twenty-four consecutive, mostly televised, sparring sessions? In the eyes of most boxing fans Russell is emblematic of everything that is wrong with sport today. He receives high-paid TV dates to fight opposition that, given his talent, is tantamount to fighting animated corpses. He’s the WBO’s number one ranked contender even though he hasn’t beat a single opponent that could justifiably be considered a top-twenty featherweight.

In fact his opposition has been so poor that it has even caused many to second guess his talent. If Russell is so special then why has he been matched so carefully? Are they hiding some tragically grand flaw? He’s never been matched against anyone that remotely resembles a puncher, is that because he has no chin? Have his chronic injury problems diminished his once prodigious talent? This is of course pure speculation and gossip but given his career stagnation it’s an inevitable consequence. The only thing we know about Russell is that he’s an ultra-talented guy who’s fought twenty-four pushovers.

If Russell has been the most carefully matched prospect in the world, than Vasyl Lomachenko, 1-1-0-(1), has been the least. Lomachenko’s first two opponents combined for over seventy professional fights worth of experience. Lomachenko and his team have attempted to buck the system by skipping the prospect stage of his career and moving straight towards title contention. The gamble has been met with mixed success.

For years Lomachenko was boxing’s greatest urban legend. A YouTube wunderkind that boxing nerds salivated over—this generation’s version of Teofilo Stevenson—the greatest pro that never was. After all, he’d won two gold medals, two world championships, and a European amateur title all by his twenty-fifth birthday. Even more outstandingly his amateur record is reputed to be a stunning 396-1, with the lone loss avenged—twice. Most fans never thought that they would get a chance to see the world’s greatest amateur mix it up with the best pros. When he signed up for AIBA’s ludicrous semi-pro “World Series of Boxing” league most felt that was the death of all hope in terms of him ever turning pro.

Yet, to the delight of all, after winning the league’s championship he singed a professional contract with Top Rank with the bold intension of fighting for a world title within his first three fights. In his first pro fight he was matched against Jose Ramirez, a club fighter with an out of proportion to his talent record of 25-3, whom he waxed in the fourth round. It was instantly hailed as the greatest pro debut victory of all time by seasoned boxing writers. Never mind that Ramirez had lost a landslide point’s decision to a 9-0 teenager in Mexico a few fights before—Lomachenko was for real. After all, he was as good as anyone Russell has fought in over five years as a professional boxer.

The naïve wave of optimism was brought to a screeching halt when former world champion, Orlando Salido dragged him into a back alley brawl and torpedoed Top Rank’s best-laid plans. That a guy with eleven loses like Salido, who’s fought everyone and been given no breaks, was the man to beat the 396-1 Olympic champion was a triumph for professionalism. Before his professional debut Lomachenko was ask about the difference between prestigious amateur boxing and professional boxing in American and he and his father dismissively stated, “less skilled”—I wonder if he still feels that way?

Ironically, the many fouls committed by Salido and a final round rally by Lomachenko has pretty much given everyone an excuse for the loss. He would have won if it weren’t for all the low blows. It was a learning experience that will only make him greater. He was a punch or two away from winning. The alternative, that Lomachenko has an amateur style that is not conducive to pro boxing, would ruin a great story.

But really why should Lomachenko have beaten Salido? Why should he able to win a world championship after just two fights? Amateur boxing has been completely warped by the computer scoring system and is no longer the greatest indicator of future professional success. That’s why since its inception less than a handful of Gold Medalists has won any form a world title. With all of the title belts out there these days, that is a remarkable and disturbing statistic. Not even Floyd Mayweather, with all his ridiculous speed and unmatched athleticism, won a gold medal. Neither did Miguel Cotto, Gennady Golovkin, Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez or the vast majority of other top fighters in the sport.

Just go to YouTube and watch some Olympic boxing from the last couple games, it looks more like gloved fencing than it does real boxing. To think that Lomachenko, even with all of his undeniable ability, could go from that to world championship glory in just a couple of fights is ridiculous. And just remember Orlando Salido, though tough and resolute, is far from the best around the 126-135 weight classes. Mikey Garcia, two years Lomachenko’s junior, chewed Salido up and spit him out like dog food.

The truth is that Lomachenko is far from being a complete pro. During the Top Rank broadcast of his fight with Salido, Larry Merchant, who has probably seen more talented fighters than anyone else alive, stated that he didn’t see anything about Lomachenko that indicated greatness. In that fight Lomachenko pulled his punches (especially the head shots), showed a noted lack of infighting ability and a jab that was nowhere to be found. One great round, the twelve, did not make up for eleven mediocre ones.

With all of the doubt surrounding these two young fighters, it’s miraculously appropriate that their litmus test will come against each other. So far both of their careers, for very different reasons, have been a case study that talent and/or potential is not enough to be great. This is “too much too soon” versus “I want everything handed to me”—a true battle of raw potential and one that will produce a real contender by the end of it. Also, as an added bonus, one of either Golden Boy or Top Rank’s investments will completely blow up in their face—meaning the fans win no matter what the outcome.

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